Musician’s rights symposium discusses Erroll Garner, NFTs


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Robin D. G. Kelley, top left, Michael Heller and Irene Monteverde at Thursday’s Musician’s Rights Symposium organized by Pitt’s Jazz Studies program.

By Renee Dubaich, For The Pitt News

Michael Heller, a professor and jazz historian, said one of Pittsburgh’s greatest legacies in the jazz scene is the work of pianist Erroll Garner. Heller even said it isn’t uncommon to go to shows and meet people who were around when Garner was alive.

“Pittsburgh still has a really vibrant scene in multiple locations, and there is a jazz community that really stretches back through the 20th century and continues today,” Heller said. “It’s very much a living tradition that connects particularly to Pittsburgh’s Black community, and the community takes a lot of pride in it.”

Heller spoke Thursday at the Musician’s Rights Symposium organized by Pitt’s Jazz Studies program. Students and faculty came together to celebrate Garner’s legacy, and learn about historic and current issues facing musicians’ rights. Garner was a renowned American jazz pianist and composer from Pittsburgh who died in 1977. He would have been 100 this past year.

This virtual event was a part of the 51st annual jazz seminar and concert. The symposium consisted of two parts — a panel discussion and a keynote presentation.

Aaron J. Johnson, an assistant professor of music and a moderator on the panel, said Garner was one of the most prominent musicians at the head of musicians’ rights. He explained how Black musicians took action and promoted economic opportunity.

“Erroll Garner fought a magnificent battle against ‘the man’ and won. We want to celebrate that, and we want to extend upon that, and use that element of Garner’s story to really examine some issues of rights, and in a larger sense justice for musicians,” Johnson said.

Garner’s life would not have been fully pieced together if it weren’t for the workers behind the Erroll Garner archives. Heller has extensively studied the Erroll Garner archives acquired by Pitt in 2015.

Heller also taught a course on Garner and the archives. This work became the basis for the Erroll Garner exhibit in the William Pitt Union lobby that went up in 2016.

“It’s an absolutely incredible collection because not only does it have a tremendous amount of his music and his recordings including full session reels, and behind the scenes and tapes that weren’t released,” Heller said. “The archive was of his office and his manager Martha Glaser, so it has all of this extensive documentation of how the sausage is made, all of the behind the scenes work in the entertainment industry, the good, the bad and the ugly of it.”

The symposium also brought up more recent media concerns to the table, such as the rise of NFTs — digital tokens that link to an exclusive digital file such as an image.

Tina Rivers Ryan, an art historian and panelist, said the rising phenomenon of NFTs is having an intense effect on the current artistic landscape. She also raised the question on whether or not NFTs help marginalized individuals maintain ownership of their work.

“With NFTs, part of the conversation that we are having around them is the way that we might be able to use digital technologies to address some of these historic injustices, and the way in which NFTs might be an engine for change,” Ryan said. “But also the way in which they could be encoding into technology, and exacerbating the systems we already have.”

Heller said these injustices are cyclical and can be picked out in history. Garner, in particular, was given a reputation of being apolitical when this may have not been true, especially when observing his engagement in the Civil Rights Era.

“Garner’s not put at the front of that conversation, that he sort of had this reputation as a sort of detached apolitical individual,” Heller said. “We are really looking to change that assessment of him because what we found in the archive is a consistent engagement with those issues.”

Irene Monteverde, a Ph.D. student in Pitt’s Jazz Studies department and a featured speaker, also studied the archives and is an avid admirer of Garner’s music.

“I sit there sifting through paperwork trying to piece together Garner’s professional life with the help of the manager, what he was able to accomplish and the trials and tribulations of being a Black musician back then,” Monteverde said.

Monteverde said her admiration of Garner and his music had a profound influence on her work. She said the way Garner is able to play many different styles of music makes him special.

“The musicians that dig into him really get the language of the tradition mostly because of how it makes you feel and how it makes your audience feel and the people you are playing with feel,” Monteverde said. “Errol Garner’s music is really beautiful and really inspiring. There is no specific place to start with his music because it all makes you happy, it all has a really good vibe to it.”